Turkish universities are heating up

Turkish universities are heating up

As Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan was asking questions to Ankara Chamber of Commerce members about whether the professors were teaching the Middle East Technical University (METU, or ODTÜ) students how to make ‘Molotov cocktails’ or firebombs or to throw stones at police, thousands of students, professors and employees were silently rallying toward the stadium on the campus. Erdoğan was also claiming – metaphorically – that it was the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) that “was giving the Molotov cocktails to the students and hiding behind them.”

The crowd, being the biggest in decades in Turkey, was carrying a banner with “ODTÜ is standing up and resisting the AKP” written on it as a protest against Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti). They filled up the stadium and silently started to wait for the result of the meeting between Erdoğan and Ahmet Acar, the rector of the university, in the afternoon hours. Erdoğan had said in the meantime that the professors and administration at ODTÜ should resign. But soon it was announced that President Abdullah Gül was going to talk to the rector as well, which he did.

What made Erdoğan so furious may not be only the protest of the students during a ceremony held on the campus of ODTÜ for the launching of the Göktürk-2 satellite broadcasted live from China. But more than that the reaction of Acar against the disproportionate police attitude toward the protesting students, showing solidarity within the university, which was not something seen since the military coup in 1980. Acar was also calling students to calm down and not to do anything to lead to violence in their protests; Erdoğan went on bashing the university and its rector, as if he was tolerating violent methods. Erdoğan’s stance against ODTÜ was immediately supported by the – mostly newly appointed – rectors of some –mostly newly founded – 50 (out of some 170) universities in Turkey.

Yet ODTÜ, from its rector to its students, did not step back, which was probably the real reason of Erdoğan’s fury. Founded in the late ‘50s with American aid, the English-language-instruction ODTÜ is not only one of the best-quality universities in Turkey (ODTÜ graduate engineers designed the satellite to start with) but also renowned for its leftist posture. It is true that many right-wing politicians are also ODTÜ graduates; Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, Turkey’s successful economy chief, and Cevdet Yılmaz, the development minister are two of them, as members of Erdoğan’s Cabinet. But the general atmosphere of the university has always leaned left.

So as ODTÜ started to show its stance after decades, it started to find an echo in other universities in Turkey. As Acar was talking to Gül, students and some professors at the prestigious Galatasaray University in Istanbul were in a mass protest in front of the rector’s office asking him to withdraw his signature from the statement in line with Erdoğan or resign. The rector of the prestigious Hacettepe University in Ankara was trying to explain to his colleagues and students that he was misunderstood and actually his statement was not a written one but verbal.

It is not clear how this stand off will end up, but it clearly indicates that the universities in Turkey have started to heat up in political terms.